With the recent revelations about civilian surveillance by the National Security Agency, Google has implemented encrypted search into its American version as well as its versions in several other countries. This type of search–which masks the identities of users and makes it much more difficult to learn which sites were visited—is expected to be implemented in Google’s Chinese search engine.
China is a huge market with more than a 1.35 billion residents, but only 600 million internet users. This is largest national population with internet access, and it is not surprising that Google is making significant efforts to capture market share there. At the moment the most popular search engine in China is Baidu. Google presently represents only five percent of the Chinese search market.
Google’s introduction of encrypted search is in contrast to the Baidu search engine. Baidu actively censors user activity by recommending sites that have been approved by the totalitarian regime. Using encrypted search would grant more freedom to Chinese nationals who wish to visit unapproved sites while more effectively hiding their identities.
While this is the first attempt by Google to employ encrypted search in its Chinese version, it has made business moves in protest of China’s censorship policy. In 2010, Google truncated their Chinese operations to protest the censorship instituted by the Communist leaders. This was in part a move by the Chinese government to quash various social movements including democratization, free Tibet, and the treatment of the Muslim minority group Uyhhur.
Originally founded in 2000 by Eric Xu and Robin Li Baidu is the largest Chinese language search engine with a market share of 56 percent. It responds to almost 2.24 billion search queries each year. It is currently ranked as the fifth largest internet company in the world with a market capitalization of almost $55 billion.
Encrypted search only applies to users who are logged into Google. These users must also have SSL or Secure Sockets Layer enabled. According to Matt Cutts, a design engineer with Google, encrypted search is likely to apply only to less than ten percent of search queries.
In effect, enabling SSL will prevent others from learning the referral behavior of Google. In other words, users will see a secure icon—a lock symbol—before the http in the URL of a referred site. This will signify that third parties will not have access to the transition from a Google search engine results page to one of the listed sites.
Google has also engineered a way to allow some web administrators to override this. Certain organizations like schools who wish to prevent users from accessing illicit or prohibited sites can choose to implement this option on their networks.
Many of the revelations regarding the domestic spying program by the NSA came to light following the data leak from former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. Snowden divulged so much classified information regarding the spying and other programs, that the leak is considered one of the most damaging in U.S. history.